Photos: Honda. Click image to enlarge
By Jeremy Cato
The Honda Accord Hybrid, until now shut out of all this season’s big “Car of the year” awards, has just won perhaps the most important crown of all. Consumer Reports magazine, the bible for an astonishing number of car buyers with its paid subscription circulation of more than 5.7 million, recently named the 2005 Accord Hybrid its top pick for family sedans.
“The Honda Accord delivers an excellent balance of comfort, roominess and handling,” notes Consumer Reports in its April, 2005 auto issue. “The new gasoline-electric Accord Hybrid, which scored highest among all 32 family sedans tested, is very quick and delivered 25 mpg (miles per U.S. gallon, or in metric 9.4 Litres/100 km).”
There is arguably no more influential source of automotive information than Consumer Reports. The magazine’s rankings, based on its own tests, readers’ opinions and crash test safety data, are feared and to some extent also cultivated by all automakers.
Forrester Research of Cambridge, Massachusetts, says one-third of U.S. car buyers consult the magazine, and auto industry officials say their own internal research shows at least 25 per cent of buyers are influenced by the annual auto issue. While there is no comparable data available in Canada, it is obvious the magazine has serious clout on both sides of the border.
So after a healthy seven-year run, the Volkswagen Passat was knocked off its coveted perch as first in the family car rankings. That really shouldn’t come as a great surprise.
The Passat is an aging design, one due to be replaced next year with an all-new version shown for the first time at the recent Geneva auto show. The Accord, meanwhile, received its last major makeover for the 2003 model year. Even at that, the Passat shared top family car honours last year with the regular Accord.
What tipped the balance solidly in favour of the Accord this year? “This pick was sealed when the gas-electric Accord Hybrid version earned the highest score in the family sedan category, beating out the Passat V-6, which had shared the top pick in that segment last year,” says CR spokesman Doug Love.
“The Hybrid delivers quicker acceleration than the V-6 Accord, but the fuel economy of the four-cylinder version. And it’s really the first of a new wave of hybrids that delivers both good performance and better fuel economy than the conventional version.”
It is worth pointing out that while the Accord Hybrid was the top family car among all family cars, the whole Accord line-up gets the top recommendation in this class from CR.
“All the Accord models that we have tested have done well,” says Love. “They provide a very good blend of comfort, roominess and handling, and have had very good reliability, as well.”
When it comes to the high-tech Accord Hybrid, consider the numbers: with its 255-horsepower hybrid tandem powertrain – a V-6 gasoline engine teamed with an electric motor and battery pack – 0-100 km/times come in well under eight seconds.
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For this reporter, who last November argued for the Accord Hybrid as car of the year in Canada, CR’s choice makes perfect sense.
This Accord is no science project; rather, it is an efficient and elegant bit of engineering with a reasonable price ($36,990) and a five-year/100,000 km powertrain warranty.
I am a big fan and not just because the Accord Hybrid’s 255 ponies get the better of the regular Accord’s 240 hp. The Hybrid’s torque – power you feel in your fanny when you goose the throttle – is nine per cent greater (at 232 lbs-ft), too.
Make no mistake, the Hybrid Accord leaps off the line, leaving the non-hybrid in its dust. Yet fuel economy versus the Accord V-6 is officially an impressive 31 per cent better in the city and 21 per cent better on the highway.
That’s good, but not good enough to justify the price premium. The Accord Hybrid sells for $36,990, $3,390 more than a comparably equipped non-hybrid V-6 Accord EX. So even with today’s higher gas prices, it could take as many as 10 years for the hybrid system to pay for itself at the pump. At least for the average driver.
Again, look at the numbers. According to the 2005 Fuel Consumption Guide from Natural Resources Canada, an Accord Hybrid will cost you $966 a year at the pump. A V-6 Accord with an automatic transmission runs $1,297 a year for gas. The Hybrid cuts Accord fuel costs by $331 a year, therefore in 10 years you can expect to save $3,331 on gas.
But there is more to this business case than fuel costs. Buyers should also factor in government and private industry assistance for “green” drivers.
The Ontario Government offers a tax rebate of up to $1,000 on the purchase of a hybrid electric or alternative fuel vehicle, but that pales in comparison to British Columbia, where the government gives a tax rebate of up to $2000. Prince Edward Island tops them all with a sales tax rebate of up to $3,000.
Somewhere in all this the Canadian Government has dropped the ball. There are no financial incentives for environmentally conscious car buyers available from Ottawa. All we get are commercials starring high-priced comedians touting the “One-Tonne Challenge.”
Private industry, on the other hand, is pitching in. For instance, Vancity, a Vancouver-based Credit Union, offers a competitive loan rate of prime + 0 per cent as part of its Climate Change Solutions program. Officials there say their program could be worth $4,500 over five years.
Honda’s pricing, government grants and perhaps some a low interest loan combine to make something of a compelling financial argument for the Accord Hybrid – other hybrids, too. But what tipped the scales for me, the reason I voted for the Accord Hybrid in the annual testing for car of the year by the Automobile Journalists’ Association of Canada (AJAC), is the intelligent, elegant and relatively simple approach Honda has taken with the Accord Hybrids.
It starts with weight, a major enemy of fuel economy. To cut it, this hybrid has an aluminum hood and a magnesium intake manifold. These are little things, and not inexpensive ones, but they are effective when sprinkled throughout the car.
Next, Honda has done some nice work with basic engine technology and the software tools now managing it. Before the engineers even tackled the hybrid system in the Accord, they improved fuel economy by equipping the engine with systems to shut down three of six cylinders in both gentle starts and when the engine is just cruising on the highway.
The Odyssey minivan, another top pick from CR, also has what Honda calls Variable Cylinder management or VCM. In both instances, VCM delivers perhaps a 15 per cent fuel economy improvement.
On the road the shift from six to three cylinders is imperceptible. You might expect an imbalanced engine running on three cylinders to be rough and loud, but here it is not because Honda has designed special motor mounts and a noise-cancellation system to cancel the normal booming of an out-of-sync engine. The system is really quite slick. Microphones in the passenger compartment pick up noise and create a counter-cyclical sound wave to cancel out the unwanted racket.
Finally, we have the Honda hybrid system itself. In daily use you barely notice it shutting down the engine at a stoplight with a soft shudder. The same when you nudge the gas and the engine comes to life, propelling you forward. In the city, this feature accounts for about 25 per cent of the difference between the standard Accord’s city mileage and the hybrid’s.
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The heart of it all is the latest version – the third-generation version — of Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist, or IMA, technology. It makes a major contribution in two ways.
First On the conservation side, the IMA acts as a generator. It captures all sorts of wasted energy — e.g., it regenerates heat into electric power when you brake — and stores it as electricity in the hybrid’s small nickel-metal hydride battery pack.
Second, when you need a real boost to merge in traffic, the IMA kicks in. The thin electric motor mounted between the gasoline engine and the five-speed automatic transmission provides as much as 16 hp and 100 lbs-ft of torque. Think of it as an electric supercharger.
And the power comes on with a smooth and almost startling efficiency. The hybrid zoom is simply delightful. Here we have a fast and efficient, no-compromises green car. In fact, the hybrid is a full second faster at 0-100 km/hour than a conventional V-6 Accord.
Critics, some of them at Toyota, say the Accord is only a mild hybrid and they’re right. Unlike Toyota’s system, a full hybrid which can power the rival Prius hybrid solely on electricity, Honda’s gasoline and electric motors always work in tandem.
Honda officials say their smaller electric motor and less complex overall system gives their company more flexibility to put build other Honda and Acura vehicles. Still, Honda president Takeo Fukui is on the record saying his company has no plans to build a hybrid sport-utility vehicle (SUV) in the next three years. Toyota will launch at least two hybrid SUVs this year alone and Ford has offered the Escape Hybrid SUV since last year.
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Fukui has said an updated Honda Civic Hybrid is due in the fall. The second-generation Civic Hybrid is expected to have significantly higher fuel economy and performance than the current model. Don’t expect the next Civic Hybrid to look like the radical development it is, though. The Accord Hybrid has set the tone for Honda there and that is perhaps the car’s greatest weakness.
Not that the Accord styling is unattractive. It isn’t. The car looks quite nice for a family car. The problem is that the Accord Hybrid is virtually indistinguishable from a conventional version of the sedan.
Yes, there are a few modest details — the hybrid badge, unique wheels, and a small, trunk-mounted spoiler – but nothing stands out and makes a statement about what the car is and does. Toyota’s approach with the Prius is the exact opposite.
That said, the Accord Hybrid is loaded with just about every uptown goody available on the Accord line, including leather seats, a rear lip spoiler, a fancy stereo and power-operated seats, door locks, windows. It is very luxurious.
What you have here is a hot-shoe hybrid loaded with luxury features, but tamed by middle class styling. Apparently that is just exactly the kind of four-door Consumer Reports likes best.